French-Swiss director Ursula Meier burst on the international film scene with her 2008 feature debut "Home," about a peculiar family living next to a highway. Her follow-up, "Sister," lacks the same conceptual ambition but consolidates her skill with a tightly assembled narrative that brings supreme clarity to the mindset of a disgruntled young boy. Evoking a lost childhood with bittersweet intent, "Sister" bears the mark of a filmmaker with supreme control over her material.
That's not meant to overstate the movie's appeal; it navigates a basic scenario without breaking new ground. However, Meier never loses her grasp on the basic story elements; her patient formalism calls to mind Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop," which also involves a pair of impoverished siblings using unreliable means to make ends meet.
In "Sister," scheming 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) wastes his days at a posh ski resort in the Alps, where he regularly pilfers skis and other supplies and pawns them off to the world down below. He spends the rest of his time keeping restless sister Louise (rising star Léa Seydoux) at bay, as she drifts through an aimless life of unemployment and promiscuity. Their days in the valley form a tame, insipid routine that Simon only manages to tune out with his inevitably risky business, which reaches new heights when he partners with an older employee at the ski resort (Martin Compston) to complicate the endeavor.
Meier initially follows Simon with a simple, uncomplicated linearity before delving further into the details of his situation with a naturalism that recalls the Dardenne brothers (particularly their latest effort, "The Kid with a Bike"). Rather than aping the same approach, however, Meier applies it in a distinctly engaging fashion by avoiding tricky camerawork and simply observing Simon's life until the cracks in his confidence slowly grow clear.
The barren, expansive landscape keeps the focus on the small cast, with only a few other minor characters around to eke out the existing tension between Simon and Louise. Meier's minimalist atmsophere reflects Simon's point of view without endorsing it; he's a sympathetic victim of a world largely ignorant to his existence.
That positions him as a survivor whose immorality emerges from pragmatic necessity. Once busted for his crimes, an occupational hazard he faces more than once, an older man asks him why he steals. Simon doesn't hesitate: "To buy things," he replies. But that answer is an excuse, rather than an explanation; by following Simon's aggressive need to maintain balance in his life, "Sister" makes it clear that he doesn't overthink it. Rather than longing to change his impoverished circumstances, he simply works in congress with them using the resources at his disposal.
Eventually, forces rise up to complicate Simon's endeavor, but Meier takes the emphasis off repurcussions for his thievery and instead explores his reasons for acting out in the first place. At this point, Louis' cold, distant interactions with Simon start to make sense, and her struggle becomes as central as Simon's.
Without revealing too much, it's safe to say that a late twist alters the way we perceive the two characters' relationship while avoiding the possibility of cheapening it; Meier uses it as a transitional point rather than a surprise finish. The final, wordless minutes, when all the story elements are firmly in place, practically stand alone as a separate work. "Sister" may not arrive at a happy ending, but the lack of resolution -- capped off by the powerful last image --completes its journey to a place of rousing emotional clarity.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite crowdpleaser in Berlin, "Sister" is likely to reach arthouse audiences in the U.S. with a small theatrical release and stands a chance at solid business due to appreciative reviews.